Not long ago, I watched Hereditary—
–the critically-acclaimed Horror flick released this past summer which found modest success at the domestic box office.
As a longtime Horror fan who’s learned to distrust critical hype, I didn’t go into Hereditary expecting it to be anywhere near as memorable as The Exorcist or that it would “grip” me “with real horror, the unspeakable kind“.
It just looked like yet another grim, bleak, arthouse Horror film, which generally aren’t the kinds that appeal to me. While there have been a few exceptions over the years, arthouse Horror, made by Serious Filmmakers, usually puts me off. I just find them too dry and pretentious, often to the point of being anti-audience. So, with Hereditary, my expectations weren’t that high.
In terms of aesthetics, I thought it was well-made. In terms of its handling of the subject matter and its plot, I thought it was moderately interesting, but, overall, exactly what I expected it to be, judging from its trailer.
Grim and bleak, yes, but occasionally shocking, occasionally confusing, and utterly lacking in humor. Even The Exorcist had humor, as well as humanity. Without those elements, I’m not so sure it would have achieved the level of box office success that it did:
I recently discovered a You Tube channel, named pocketsofthefuture, after it popped up in my sidebar suggestions. I don’t share this Youtuber’s views on everything– for example, I’m not a believer in apocalyptic conspiracy theory– but he covers interesting topics from time to time and I usually appreciate his perspectives even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Occasionally, I’ll find myself nodding in agreement with his opinions, but when it comes to his take on Horror movies…
…that’s where our opinions part ways. His comments on the genre, however, did prompt me to reflect on Horror movies and how they’re viewed by different people.
My perception of the comments made by Hereditary‘s director and one of its principal cast members in the clip featured in the pocketsofthefuture video was that, in promoting their film, they were being cheeky in an attempt to be provocative. They did not seem particularly serious to me.
Even if the director were sincere and stating his true intentions for the film, I’d put about as much faith in him achieving that as I would for a director stating that his feature film/future dump-bin unit would bring about world peace.
I’ve been watching Horror movies most of my life, beginning around the time I was four years old, when my dad took me to see (G-rated) The Legend Of Boggy Creek.
Though tame by today’s standards, the film scared the hell out of me. And I couldn’t wait to see it again. I certainly didn’t feel ‘traumatized’. I don’t recall the film giving me nightmares.
I’ve always looked at Horror films the same way I view Action-Thrillers, as cinematic equivalents of an amusement park rollercoaster ride. And, yes, as entertainments.
Like almost any other kind of story, a Horror film can function as a cautionary tale, a morality tale, even as something, dare I say, inspirational.
For instance, I’ve always viewed Slasher films not as being about the ‘slashing’ perpetrated by their fictional killers, but as survival stories, featuring (usually) heroines who survive by evading and, ultimately, defeating evil.
I’ve never understood the audience members who root for the killers in these movies, loudly cheering the onscreen body counts of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. I suppose if you have contempt for the genre you’re supporting at the box office, that’s the kind of behavior you might engage in, but…
Director John Carpenter, in his audio commentary for Halloween, stated that “if there’s any point to be made in the film, it’s that you can survive the night” and that “being aware of the possibility of evil is an important thing in life” (quotes begin at 1:26:27 in the YT video I’ve linked to below):
My own personal litmus test regarding Horror films is simple: Is the filmmaker glorifying evil or depicting it as a dark force to conquer and overcome, or at the very least, survive?
Hostel Part II is an example of the former, featuring a heroine whose journey concluded with the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” canard, just one reason I had no interest in watching that film a second time. None of the Halloween movies glorify evil, nor do most Horror films I count among my favorites.
Just because a Horror movie ends on a dark, ominous note doesn’t necessarily mean the filmmaker’s glorifying evil. Often, it’s more likely a case of wanting to chill the viewer to the bone.
I prefer those kinds of Horror movies, because they tend to leave me with something more to think about after I leave the theater. Movies that wrap everything up in a clean, neat, optimistic bow are easier to forget about. Some people prefer that.
Twenty years ago, while browsing in a Media Play home video section, I overheard a young guy ask his girlfriend if she’d seen a particular movie. “I didn’t like it”, she said, explaining that “It’s one of those movies that makes you think and I hate that”. Her sentiment, needless to say, blew my mind.
Are some Horror films designed to leave people feeling bummed out, full of despair, sleep-deprived by nightmares, riddled with PTSD? Perhaps. If so, do they succeed? Perhaps, among a small percentage of delicate souls, or gluttons for punishment, but, among the great majority of Horror fans? Let’s just say I have my doubts.
When you watch a trailer, for any kind of film, what happens? You figure out very quickly what kind of movie it is and whether or not you’ll want to watch it.
I strongly suspect that most moviegoers who react to Horror films in the manner described by pocketsofthefuture are not the kinds of people willing to sit through Horror films to begin with.
As I’m sure is the case with most any Horror fan, I have certain friends, co-workers and relatives who absolutely, sometimes proudly, refuse to watch what they call “scary movies”. And why is that? (I’ve heard this more than once):
“I don’t like being scared”.
Which is totally understandable. If you’re aware that you don’t enjoy a certain kind of entertainment, why would you waste your time with it?
A friend of mine once told me that the violence in Menace II Society, for him, was scarier than anything he’d ever seen in a Horror movie, because, he said, unlike ghosts and demons, “that shit’s real and you know it could really happen, because it does“.
About twenty years ago, my dad and I were discussing the cinematic trend of Satanic Seventies Horror, specifically The Exorcist, The Omen, The Sentinel, and The Amityville Horror. He told me that he always viewed those movies as being “little more than propaganda for the Catholic church“, i.e. that if you had a serious problem, the Catholic church could solve it for you.
I mostly disagreed with his view of that particular sub-genre of Horror film. One could view The Exorcist that way, but I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a cheerleader for Catholicism. Its author/producer, William Peter Blatty, was concerned audiences would believe the Devil had won. Director William Friedkin felt audiences could interpret the film’s ending either way, but it didn’t bother him.
Anybody who views The Amityville Horror as a ringing endorsement of the Catholic church hasn’t seen the movie.
The Catholic higher-ups are depicted as narrow-minded, bureaucratic bullies, while Rod Steiger’s compassionate, idealistic priest fails to prevent the film’s evil forces from driving the victimized Lutz family from their home in terrified desperation. The family survives in spite of the indifferent/ineffectual Catholic authority figures having failed them.
Of the films my dad and I discussed, only The Sentinel could firmly be viewed as pro-Catholic propaganda, since the church does triumph over demonic forces at the literal entrance to Hell…but, no matter how many times I’ve watched the film, I’ve never said to myself “Gee, I’d love to be a Catholic. Maybe I’ll join the church“. It’s always been just a movie for me, a Horror spin on the age-old, basic theme of Good Versus Evil.
In The Omen, the two Catholic priests who play pivotal roles in the story are revealed to be corrupt perpetrators of a Satanic conspiracy. On top of that, the film concludes with Evil’s triumph over Good, if only momentarily.
In 1991, when I purchased the laserdisc of The Final Conflict (aka Omen III) at a PX in Mannheim, Germany, the civilian dependent-wife working the cash register that afternoon just had to comment on my purchase.
“Ooohh, The Final Conflict, that’s a good movie”, she said, “I don’t like scary movies, but I love the Omens. And this one’s my favorite”.
Really, I asked. Why’s that?
“‘Cause this is the one where they get him”, she grinned.
What I knew of this woman, she was a devout Christian who never missed church on Sundays. Not a Horror fan, but she loved The Omen Trilogy.
Shortly after that encounter, a fellow GI, who was also a devout Christian, told me basically the same thing when he found out I had two of the three Omen movies on laserdisc.
“I love those movies, but the last one’s the best…cause that’s the one where they finally get him“.
Like the cashier, this GI was not a fan of Horror movies…except for The Omen Trilogy. Biblical inspiration, Good Versus Evil, and, ultimately, Satan gets his ass kicked. I can see why that might appeal to Christians, I remember thinking. Odd, but interesting.
My late mother, on the other hand, despite loving the first two films in the series, hated The Final Conflict, appalled by its updating of Herod’s Slaughter Of The Innocents (*). My Horror-fan mom, who never tired of sitting through The Omen over and over again, told me she had absolutely no interest in watching the trilogy’s concluding chapter a second time. And she wasn’t particularly religious.
Hearing these differing takes on The Final Conflict from three different people, during separate conversations, contributed to my awareness that people are capable of watching Horror movies for different reasons and responding to them in different ways.
In my nearly fifty years, in all my conversations with friends, co-workers and family members regarding the subject of Horror films, I’ve never heard a fellow Horror fan say “I love watching these movies because they make me feel miserable, traumatized, full of despair and riddled with PTSD, like they’ve just put some kind of sickness inside of me. I just love how shitty scary movies make me feel“.
To reiterate my point: People who react that way to Horror movies do not watch Horror movies…well…except for when they do:
“Hereditary scared the shit out of me. The night after I saw it, I woke up with an actual panic attack.” -Louis Peitzman, writing for Buzzfeed
I can see a movie giving one nightmares, but…panic attacks? Twenty-four hours later? And you’re a grown man?
Pardon my language, but I think that’s fuckin’ ridiculous.
Aside from seeing the Jaws trailer on a large screen in a movie theater…when I was five…I don’t recall any Horror movie giving me nightmares. Certainly not panic attacks, nor PTSD.
Here are some of the R-rated Horror movies I watched on HBO with my mom, or with my dad in movie theaters, from age eleven to thirteen: The Amityville Horror, Silent Scream, The Howling, The Shining, The Funhouse, Humanoids From The Deep, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Legacy, Friday The 13th, Creepshow, Silent Rage, The Beast Within, The Thing, Hell Night, Happy Birthday To Me, Dead & Buried, He Knows You’re Alone…
Not one of those movies provided me with nightmares, much less “traumatized” me. And that was back when I was young and impressionable, not having seen a ton of scary movies yet, or being well-versed in their gimmicks and clichés to the point where they no longer had much effect on me.
Like a thrilling rollercoaster ride, an effective Horror movie provides me with a momentary jolt, or a sinking feeling of unease, in the pit of my stomach– which is when I know the film is working exactly as I’d hoped it would– but when the movie’s over, those sensations quickly recede.
Maybe I’m just a jaded, desensitized curmudgeon, but I do not understand this post-millennial concept of Horror movies causing– gasp!— “trauma”. As a faithful subscriber to Fangoria magazine from 1981 through 1990, I grew up in an era where that word was never thrown around by Horror fans when discussing movies that scared them…because that’s what Horror movies are meant to do.
Anyone claiming to feel traumatized by a Horror film…which they eagerly sat down to watch, fully aware that, if it worked, it would likely scare the living daylights out of them…then I’d venture a guess they were either in possession of a psyche so fragile that they shouldn’t be watching Horror movies to begin with, as in ever…
…or, worse, that they were exaggerating their experience and misusing the word ‘trauma’, thus cheapening it, for the sake of hyperbole.
Call me cynical, but I suspect the latter is most often the case. Methinks thou doth protest too much.
(*) In order to prevent the Second Coming of Christ, Antichrist Damien Thorn instructs his disciples to murder every baby boy born during a brief time period in England. After Mom complained, I explained the Biblical origin of this part of the movie’s plot. She replied, “I know it’s in the Bible and I wish they hadn’t put it in the movie”.